The whale is a sociable and intelligent animal. Accustomed to living in groups, he communicates across long distances using his own language of sounds. The humpback whale changes his song every year. It is the longest and most complex song in the animal kingdom, a veritable song of the Earth. Every humpback has individual markings on his fins which allows for the identification of thousands of individuals and their activities year after year. Our gray whales, born in the lagoons of Baja California, but now back in the arctic waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, where they spend half the year feeding, are for the moment, safe from any new activities of the “Exportadora de Sal (Saltworks)”. Their roundtrip migration of almost 20,000Km is one of the longest undertaken by any mammal. Their friendly behaviour in our lagoons affords us human beings a magical opportunity to interact with a creature of Nature. The Right Whale (known to whalers as the best kind to hunt) is also playful. Can the whales forgive Man for having killed them so cruelly and in such quantities?
In1986 the world realized that the whales were in danger of disappearing, having been hunted to the brink of extinction for two centuries. The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on all commercial hunting of all species of whales, and these returned to their ocean sanctuaries. However Japan began whaling again in 1987, using scientific investigation as their justification. Now their argument is that of studying the impact on marine resources, of fish being eaten by the whales. Defenders of whales see in this a mere excuse for commercial hunting, since whale meat captured for “investigation” is sold in Japan, and for high prices. Whales are protected by CITES, which prohibits international trade in their meat or products. But right now Japan is trying to import up to 100 tons of whale meat annually harvested by Norwegian whalers, since the Norwegians have no way to store it in Norway. This doesn’t seem to be a good idea, since some studies have shown that the Minke whale, hunted by the Norwegians, contains high levels of mercury and PCB’s. These substances are especially harmful to fetuses and pregnant women.
The 54th Plenary Session of the International Whaling Commission will take place the 20th to the 24th of May, in Shimonoseki, Japan, a traditional whaling town where many stores and restaurants sell whale meat. As in every year there will be a proposal from the host nation to authorize a return to commercial whaling. The main argument of the whaling lobby is that the whales are eating too much fish therefore they should be eaten first. In Shimonoseki there is a poster of a whale swallowing small fish with the caption, “whales threaten the fishing industry”. According to the FAO, the global catch rose from 70 to 80 million tons in the 1980’s and to 90 million tons in the 1990’s. Everyone knows that the lamentable decline in populations of many species is due to commercial fishing, and the FAO itself recognizes that, because of commercial fishing, 80% of the world’s fisheries are being exhausted.
Under the pretext of scientific investigation, this spring Japanese whalers have already killed 440 Minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean. They have announced their intention to hunt in the Northern Pacific 150 Minke whales, 50 Tropical Rorcal, 50 Sei and 10 Sperm whales. Norway, the other country that has continued whale hunting in spite of the moratorium established in 1986 will kill 674 Minke whales this summer in the North Atlantic. The Sei is an endangered species, that feeds on plankton, and the size of its population is unknown. Last year at the Commission meeting a Japanese delegate referred to Minke whales as “ocean cockroaches”.
When the whaling fleet returned to Japan in April, it began a campaign under the slogan, “Save them, Eat them!” in order to push the consumption of whale meat for young people, according to the Kyodo newsagency. But it seems that the Japanese themselves are on the point of putting an end to the tradion of eating whale meat. After WW2 eating whale meat was common, for lack of other foodstuffs, and in 1960 it was the most common type of meat in Japan, reaching 27% of meat produced in Japan. In l985 it fell to 0.4%. Last year there was a decline in consumption. According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, 53% of those surveyed between the ages of 20 and 24 said they did not eat whale meat. In April there was an official campaign among young people to promote consumption, with free distribution of whale stews, breaded whale chops, and whale steaks.
If cuotas are renewed at the meeting, some indigenous whaling communities will have the right to kill 1,940 whales in the next five years. In April, Caribbean countries that promote whaling met in Antigua to defend the right to use their ocean resources. One may ask whether whales belong to any one country, or just to themselves. Whales are migratory; they cross the oceans, visit the waters of many nations. These six countries – Antigua and Barbados, St Kitts and St. Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Granadas, Granada, Dominica and Saint Lucia – have been accused of selling their votes to be in favor of hunting. An official of the government of Antigua declared that whale hunting was crucial for the region in order the maintain the populations of diverse species of fish, and he added that right now Antigua was constructing fishing installations with $16 million of Japanese aid. According to “the Guardian”, other countries that have received aid from Japan under the argument, “correct use of marine resources”, and have joined to form a pro-whaling block are: Guinea, Panama, Benin, Gabon and the Solomon Islands. Last year the delegate from New Zealand accused Japan of buying votes. According to Japanese authorites, among future members of the Commission might be Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Zimbadwe, Tunisia, Micronesia, Palau and Muritania.
At this time about 170 scientists are having a debate about the true populations of various species of whales. According to Australian studies, the number of Minke whales in the southern hemisphere has shrunk during the past decade from 760,000 to 270,000, figures that Norway and Japan deny. A Minke whale weighs up to ten tons and can measure ten meters in length. The conclusions of the debate will be crucial to the discussion over the moratorium during the plenary sessions. However, there are scientists who say that even if the populations are robust, to return to commercial hunting would be risky, because there is no independent monitoring of this kind of hunting, especially if poor nations start hunting to supply the Japanese market. Without a majority vote of 3/4 of the countries voting there is no way the moratorium can be lifted.
And the whales are not only threatened by hunting. Pollution of the oceans is increasing, with chemical carcinogens, huge abandoned nets and plastic garbage. The Belugas have an increased incidence of cancer. With climate change – now unarguable – there will be a reduction in the polar ice, both in the Arctic and the Antarctic, reducing both habitat and food, and altering the underwater world. The Arctic will be more exposed to oil drilling and exploration, and in the Antarctic there will be less krill, the only food for many species of whales. With the warming of the ice will come a reduction in the plankton, the basis of the polar food chain, due to an increase in UV-B radiation entering through the hole in the ozone layer. The climate change may affect the ocean currents causing unpredictable effects on the whales’ environment, and causing confusion in their migrations. There will be toxic algae and an increase in diseases that attack cetaceans. Massive and inexplicable mortalities have already been observed. Every year the Right Whale, whose population is down to 350 individuals, loses members in the North Atlantic through collisions with boats. During the meeting whalewatching will also be studied because if not done correctly the effects can be negative.
Instead of lifting the mortorium, it is important to grant more protection to whales from threats posed by the greatest predator on the planet, Man. At the meeting both Australia and New Zealand will propose that all of the South Pacific ocean be declared a whale sanctuary. For the good of the whales, for human beings and for all the creatures of the Earth, it is time to wake from the sleep of rationality and demolish the monsters that blind development is producing.